My Turn: Iraq shaping up to be another Vietnam

Posted: Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Older Americans are fond of saying if you live long enough and watch closely, history will repeat itself. For example, 35 years ago in Southeast Asia, an American warship was allegedly attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. This murky incident served to bolster the rationale made by President Johnson of defending our national security. This event coupled the so-called domino theory, was effectively used to establish the moral authority for war. Thus the tragic, decade long debacle of Vietnam began.

Today, protecting our country from the imminent threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction is the basic premise for our invasion of Iraq. Yet no WMDs have been found. And President Bush recently confided there is no proof that the regime in Iraq had any role in 9/11. Yet WMDs and 9/11 were effectively used to persuade Americans that invading and occupying Iraq was the only option to protect our national security. Fear and paranoia are strategies used by politicians to justify war in Vietnam and Iraq.

Thousands of South Korean troops serving in Vietnam were paid by American taxpayers. Today similar arrangements are being made to garnish support from our Turkish allies. Buying loyalty is still viewed as an effective way to build international coalitions. Giant engineering and construction companies made hundreds of millions rebuilding Vietnam. In Iraq these same companies have scored sole-source contracts totaling billions of dollars doing the same thing. Profiteering from the carnage of war has changed little in 35 years.

In Iraqi, daily hit-and-run attacks with RPGs and automatic weapons, combined with sabotage and mines, are as effective in killing our soldiers in the desert as they were in the jungle 35 years ago. These unconventional tactics are a grim reminder of the guerilla war in Vietnam that America was ill prepared to deal with. Unfortunately, the same holds true in Iraq.

America entered Vietnam in 1964, just as the French were leaving. With bravado and arrogance we ignored their warnings and seriously underestimated the political will of the North Vietnamese. We believed then, as we do now, that superior technology coupled with moral authority would make quick work of insurgents. Our leaders were so sure we would prevail that no exit strategy was developed. In Iraq we entered into a conflict without a prescription for how and when to get out, and grossly miscalculated postwar opposition to the U.S. occupation. In both wars, politicians blinded by arrogance prevailed, resulting in prolonged conflicts and an expenditure of lives and money that can never be recovered by our nation.

If looking at the past can help us predict the future, then sometime next year - but before the fall election, President Bush will declare a major reduction in U.S. troop strength in Iraq. Regardless of the situation on the ground, the administration will claim that Iraq is able to defend itself, much as President Nixon assured the American public that Vietnamization was really working. Then our anxiety about this war will slowly diminish as it fades from the headlines, just as the raw wound of Vietnam has been relegated to the history books.

But please recall that despite dire predictions, Southeast Asia did not become a vast Communist dictatorship after the fall of South Vietnam. And so what will our perspective on Iraq be 35 years from now? More importantly, why have our current national leaders used arrogance, fear and paranoia to promote war instead of heeding the lessons history so clearly provides?

• Greg Capito lives in Juneau.

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